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UN admits no progress made in fight against poverty

UN secretary general Kofi Annan speaks at a ceremony to mark the opening of the Geneva social summit

(Keystone)

Five years after world leaders pledged to combat poverty at a special summit in Denmark, they have admitted defeat. The United Nations General Assembly said it has failed to meet its targets and lift half the world's population out of poverty.

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged member nations to recommit themselves to battle "human misery," and to go beyond a proposed goal of halving the proportion of people in extreme poverty by 2015.

Annan called on rich nations to do more to alleviate poverty by opening their markets, speeding up debt relief, and better targetting their aid to poor countries.

"Fifteen years from now, will there still be tens of millions of primary shcool age children who are not at school?," he said. "Will tens of millions of young people of both genders still be searching unsuccessfully for work? Will whole regions of the world and large groups evein in richest societies still be condemned to live on the margins of the global economy?"

Those attending the summit received a sober assessment of the progress made, or lack of it, since the Copenhagen meeting in 1995.

"Our commitments have not been fulfilled. That is a sad fact," said the Danish prime minister, Poul Rasmussen, in a keynote speech to the Assembly. "We could have done better, much better."

In 1995, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen ended with UN member states promising to tackle poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.

While not legally binding, it was felt the Copenhagen commitments carried a strong moral and political weight, especially as there was such a strong global consensus.

Now, the UN General Assembly is holding a special session in Geneva, the capital of the world's humanitarian conscience, to assess how much progress has been made in meeting those lofty goals, and how to move the social development agenda forward.

The statistics make for sobering reading: 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, the wealth of the three richest men on earth is greater than the accumulated gross national product of the 48 poorest countries, 1.2 billion people do not have access to drinking water and 100 million people live in poverty in industrialised countries.

The special session, attended by all 188 UN member states, was opened by Annan and the Swiss president, Adolf Ogi.

Ogi noted that while poverty continues, "not a day goes by without our hearing of another merger, the birth of another new giant of the economy and the disappearance of thousands of jobs."

"Poverty has not fallen globally," said John Langmore, head of the UN's social policy division. "Unemployment remains high. The problems are almost as severe as they were five years ago," he told swissinfo.

There is a strong feeling that the Geneva summit will witness attempts to persuade international financial institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, to incorporate a social element into their policies.

The Swiss interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, told swissinfo that the international financial institutions, and business as a whole, needed to recognise the importance of civil society. "There needs to be a counterpower in society," she said "since without this the economy will destroy itself."

She said she believed the summit would be successful in creating political answers to questions concerning global poverty. "The process is underway, and while it has been too slow in eradicating poverty," she said "I believe we are moving in the right direction."

Switzerland is one country that believes globalisation is a force for good - a way of dragging developing countries out of debt and dependence - but that it must be accompanied by certain safeguards.

The Swiss invitation to hold the special General Assembly session in Geneva said that "while open markets have a central role to play in safeguarding prosperity and democracy, accelerating globalisation may hinder the well-ordered adjustment of our societies and endanger the social contract." Switzerland believes the United Nations has a central role to play.

"I think global trade rules are not sufficiently well developed at this stage," said Daniel Stauffacher, who is heading the Swiss delegation to the conference.

"I think the role of every international organisation has to be reviewed. The role of the UN has to be strengthened to tackle some of these questions and to establish new rules that will help reduce the negative effects of globalisation," he told swissinfo.

Switzerland is well aware of the growing polarisation in the debate over globalisation. In an attempt to foster dialogue, it is organising a parallel forum, Geneva 2000, to allow civil society to have its say.

The Swiss will be trying to promote their notion of a multilateral initiative - getting different international organisations, such as the WTO, the IMF, World Bank, the International Labour Organisation and UNCTAD, to overcome their mutual mistrust and devise joint programmes.

The UN says that as many as 40 initiatives could be approved by the special session. One will envisage halving the number of people living in absolute poverty by 2015. But negotiations on drafting these proposals have been tricky.

No one is foolish enough to believe that Geneva will solve all the world's social ills. Its main purpose is to identify the obstacles that have prevented the Copenhagen commitments from being implemented.

Switzerland is sending a 28-member delegation to the special session. It includes the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss and interior minister Dreifuss, who led the Swiss delegation in Copenhagen.

After the paralysis that followed the WTO meeting in Seattle last December, the Swiss officials will be hoping that a "Geneva Consensus" will emerge in which economic, labour, social and environment policies can be integrated so that everyone can enjoy the fruits of globalisation.

by Roy Probert


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